There’s a lot written about Imposters Syndrome. Most of it attempts to reassure us that feeling like an imposter is normal. I’m not here to argue with that. But too many of us do not realize how deviously imposter syndrome can invade your creative life. Or how to overcome the syndrome.
Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first coined the term Imposter Syndrome (I.S.) in 1978. According to Wikipedia, the Imposter Syndrome is “a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. It is not an officially recognized psychological disorder and is not among the conditions described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but it has been the subject of numerous books and articles by psychologists and educators.”
There was a time when we believed more women suffered from the Imposter Syndrome than men did. Unfortunately, time has shown that no one is immune to these feelings. It happens to all creatives, including writers, to celebrities, to politicians, to tradespeople, and to stay-at-home parents. And the phenomenon has been around for a long time.
Remember when Sally Field accepted the Oscar with her statement, “You like me. You really, really like me!” Yup. That’s a sign of that Imposter Syndrome. Aw, you say, she’s an actress, she doesn’t count. So how about Albert Einstein who said, “The secret of creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” Or former President Woodrow Wilson when he said, “I use not only all the brains I have but all that I can borrow.”
Imposter Syndrome is sneaky. It’s not always the same signs or the same way of thinking. Your brain is clever that way. It devises new ways to “protect” you. Here are some thoughts that suggest you have Imposter Syndrome.
Psychologists have identified four main primal drives that helped all animals, including humans, survive. They are: fight, flight, feed, and mate.
Few people dispute humans would not have survived much of the last two thousand years without our fight and flight mechanism. Fortunately, early humans developed a very strong, instinctual way of reacting to the threat of death that they lived with every day.
This means that our brains instinctively give the highest priority to these drives. Instinctively, our brains look for reasons we must fight to survive first, and if fighting isn’t survivable, we instantly take flight. Once we no longer need fight-or-flight, our brains will prioritize feeding ourselves in order to survive. Finally, we mate to ensure our survival.
Luckily, some of us have moved beyond the physical fight for survival. Many of us do not have to fight off a bear or lion or other imminent death threat. But even when we don’t have a physical death threat at our door, our brains still have that fight-or-flight instinct. So our brains look for the next “best” threat and turn it into a life-and-death issue.
We may know logically that the “threat” is not that kind of situation, but we don’t start with our thinking-brain. We start with our feeling-brain. And we feel afraid.
When we feel afraid, our brain kicks in the fight-or-flight instinct. We act to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, what we think is protective is not helpful in the least. But we don’t know it because our feeling brain tells our thinking brain what think and those thoughts become what we believe. Notice that there’s no logic built into our instincts.
The good news is that we can do something. We can learn from our fears and eventually believe differently.
If the number one culprit responsible for how we behave is our feelings, how do our feelings usually manifest themselves? Self-talk. Our brains start a running dialogue that reinforces the fear of that death threat (real or not). To combat the Imposter Syndrome, we need to counteract that running dialog based on fear.
There are many ways to address our fearful, negative self-talk. First, we have to notice it. This might mean you need to meditate on the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing. Journaling may help or reading self-help books or courses. Always check the bona fides of any book or mentor or therapist before choosing one. Professional organizations are the best option for finding reputable sources of help.
If your negative self-talk includes suicidal thoughts, to talk with a therapist now. If you don’t have one or cannot afford one, reach out to your nearest public health department, your church, or in the U.S., call 988 (English and Spanish). Outside the US, try this list of international hotlines.
On the August 6, 2023 episode of the Writing Excuses podcast, actress and writer, Kirsten Vangsness, discussed Imposter Syndrome. She suggested you can stop the argument by acknowledging you are an imposter. She says she understands that there is a part of her that constantly is trying to destroy her. Knowing that, she can recognize that self-talk and learn how to deflect or defeat it.
By acknowledging that she is an imposter, Kirsten is embracing her fear. Sometimes, simply saying I’m afraid is enough to help diminish that fear enough so you can move through the fear.
Reframing is a psychological “trick” to turn a negative thought into a positive one.
Negative: Author XYZ sells more books than I do. I must not be a good enough writer.
Positive: Even though she sells more books than I, I still sell books.
Negative: I can’t take a break. If I’m not writing, I am not a writer.
Positive: Surgeons go on vacation and they’re still a surgeon. Ergo, writers can go on vacation (or take a break) and still be writers.
You can use this technique to quell any negative thoughts you wish to change. It’s not an instant fix, but over time, it can make a vast difference in your thoughts.
Recognize your bravery and your persistence. Writer, you are brave when you act in the face of unreasonable fear. Believing you aren’t good enough is a fear. Continuing to write despite that belief/fear is an act of bravery.
You are persistent when you take the hits and keep moving toward your writing goals. No matter how small the hit to your writer's pride or identity, you keep writing. That’s persistence.
Life can derail your writing for a time. But honor what you have done. You have written. Honor what you are doing — you’re still learning, you’re still writing. The derailment doesn’t define you. You are a writer.
You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t passionate about writing. But do you know your why? Why is writing the thing that makes you feel most alive and full of purpose? Do you have a message you want to share? Do you want to entertain? Why? Dig deep. When you know why you want to write it will help you fight imposter syndrome because it gives you focus. And it will keep you keep coming back to that focus.
If you feel you’ve lost your way, perhaps your why has changed. That’s okay. As we learn and grow and write more and more, our why often will change.
Find your why and it will be your center and your compass.
You’ve got to take care of all of you. There are four parts of each individual: Physical Mental Emotional and Spiritual. Nurture these parts of you regularly. Every day is the best, but whatever works for you. The activities you do in order to feed these parts of you are uniquely yours. Don’t do something because someone else says it’s “good for you.” Do what fills your well.
Get movement into your day. That doesn’t mean run a marathon unless that’s your thing. It can be any kind of movement that you can keep doing for twenty minutes or more. Dance? Stretching? Swimming? It doesn’t have to be a rigorous exercise routine. You can take your dogs on a leisurely stroll around the block or play catch with your little one or indulge in chair yoga.
The mental well you have will be unique to you. Maybe you read nonfiction to fill your mental well. Maybe you do crosswords or you do math problems. This is about exercising your brain in a way that isn’t writing.
Find your joy. Include something that gives you great joy every day or two to three times a week. This doesn’t mean letting your joy steal time from your writing, it means find moments of joy. Some call these moments joypennies. What is it that gives you a moment of joy?
Find what feeds your soul. It can be religion, but doesn’t have to be. What feeds your soul is whatever you decide it is. It can be a walk in the park, music, viewing art by the masters, or petting your animal companion.
When you fear you aren’t a “real” writer, you focus on things that are incomplete or didn’t progress as you wanted. Instead of allowing your fear-motivated-brain to control your focus, focus on the progress you made.
Did you learn something new? Did you write for ten minutes? Keep a record of your progress. Decide which type of measure means the most to you and track it. Some writers track pages written, some track word counts. You may need to track the time you spent learning or writing.
Spreadsheets make your eyes cross? Don’t use spreadsheets. A simple list of tasks will work or a special journal for each project. The point is to measure and track for each step, no matter how small it may be. Then, when your Imposter Syndrome flares, you have something to look at and remind yourself that you are making progress.
Congratulate yourself for every step forward, even the small ones. Every one is a win.
Celebrations stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical, reinforces the experience. It makes you want more of that feeling. So celebrate your writing related wins. Every celebration will feed your writing well positive thoughts and help keep you writing.
Find (non-food related) ways to reward yourself for the larger wins. (Okay, an occasional food reward is okay, too.)
Allow yourself time to watch a new movie or to play a game or walk in your favorite park. Make your celebrations proportional, but give it enough time to sink in.
Everyone needs support from someone else from time to time. Find support. Anything from one other writer to a writer’s group to a mentor will work. Where do you look for writing support? If you want an IRL person or group, check with your local library or junior college or university. Online groups can be good options. Take an online class and connect with a fellow learner. Check your favorite social media site for fellow writers.
Give at least as well as you get. Be ready to provide support for your partner or team. Best of all, try giving before you ask for support for yourself.
Whatever you choose, look for the support that helps you the most. Need an in-depth critique. Look for that ability in your partner. Need specific genre or sensitivity support. Look for someone who has some experience in that area.
Gather the tools you need to fight imposter syndrome. Keep them somewhere you can find them in the throes of self-doubt. Use them when you need to.
It’s likely Imposter Syndrome will visit you in more than one way. Many of us never completely shed Imposter Syndrome. But you can supercharge your writing life against Imposter Syndrome and keep moving toward your writing goals.
Have you experienced Imposter Syndrome? How did you free yourself from it?
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